Opinion

Can Penn State football survive?

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger

By now, you’ve probably read or heard about the shocking news that’s rocking the entire state of Pennsylvania and the world of college football to its very core — that senior officials at Penn State University covered up evidence that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested eight boys over the course of more than a decade. Sandusky, who retired from coaching after he was told he wasn’t in line to replace Paterno as head coach, is generally acknowledged to be a defensive genius who helped Penn State earn the sobriquet of “Linebacker U.”

If you’re still unfamiliar with the outline of the story, Deadspin is a good place to start, as its summary from over the weekend hits all of the relevant points. If that read doesn’t leave you completely enraged, you could always read the 23-page report from the Pennsylvania state attorney general that lays out the charges in horrifying detail.

In addition to the charges against Sandusky, two senior Penn State officials — Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz — were also charged with perjury for their role in covering up the alleged crimes. Overnight, Penn State President Graham Spanier announced that both men had resigned in order to defend themselves against the criminal charges. And while legendary head coach Joe Paterno hasn’t been charged, he apparently will be testifying against his former assistant when he comes to trial.

While the individuals who have been charged are innocent until proven guilty — all three are maintaining their innocence at this point — the consequences for Penn State and its football program will begin to accrue immediately. Recruits who were thinking about committing to Penn State will begin to desert the program in droves as horrified parents shepherd their sons to other schools. And don’t doubt for a moment that recruiters from other schools will be using this news like a cudgel to cherry-pick top prospects from the state of Pennsylvania. That same effect may very well begin eroding the situation inside the Penn State locker room. After all, what red-shirted freshman, true freshman or sophomore would want to hang on at a university that’s quickly becoming known as “Pedophile State University“?

There are a number of other parties who are going to have to start answering uncomfortable questions as the rest of the college football season unfolds:

The NCAA: When it comes to NCAA investigations of big-time athletics, the four words no university president wants to hear are “loss of institutional control.” And while the NCAA most often simply deals with situations where schools are covering up violations of NCAA rules, we’ve rarely had a situation where a member institution was faced with charges of actual criminal malfeasance. If there’s any school where there’s been a loss of institutional control — in addition to a complete abdication of moral responsibility — it’s Penn State. In short, NCAA President Mark Emmert is going to be under considerable pressure to come down hard on the school. In the end, he may have no choice but to unleash the dreaded “death penalty,” the same punishment that was meted out to SMU’s football program in the late 1980s.

The Big 10: Penn State has always been an odd fit in the Big 10. If the charges prove to be true, and if there’s any indication that Paterno turned a blind eye to what was going on his midst — and there seems to be considerable circumstantial evidence that he did — Penn State’s reputation will be profoundly damaged and its value to the Big 10 considerably denuded. As the investigation unfolds and the realignment of football continues apace, it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for the conference to send Penn State packing and find another school to take its place.

The BCS and bowl committees: As of today, Penn State is 8-1 and undefeated in the Big 10. If the Nittany Lions manage to run the table in their last three games (at home against Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin), they’ll earn a spot in the Big 10 Conference Title Game and a potential berth in a BCS bowl. Granted, that’s an incredibly tall task for Penn State, one that will be doubly tough as its locker room is jolted by this scandal and the calls for Paterno’s resignation grow all the louder. But even if Penn State doesn’t win the Big 10 and qualify for a BCS bowl, what bowl committee in its right mind would want to issue the school an invite if it could avoid it?

When you add it all together, I have serious doubts about whether Penn State’s football program can survive. Then again, if the allegations prove to be true, it doesn’t deserve to.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.